Hotel operators in Tampa's West Shore district are pushing an idea to attract more visitors in good economic times and bad: a big, new conference center.
A consultant hired by Hillsborough County's Tourist Development Council is wrapping up an initial report on the concept. But even if PricewaterhouseCoopers concludes such an event venue in West Shore could attract enough business to work, the project faces plenty of questions.
How much would it cost? Who would pay the bill? Where's the location?
"It's too early to say," said Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, which represents businesses in a district that runs from WestShore Plaza mall to Tampa International Airport and Rocky Point to Raymond James Stadium.
West Shore is one of the state's largest office districts. The area also has more than 50 hotels with 8,000 rooms, nearly 40 percent of Hillsborough County's lodging inventory.
New projects such as the Westin on Rocky Point and three Hilton-branded hotels south of Tampa International helped drive up West Shore's available rooms by 10 percent in February from a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research. Occupancy rates fell almost as steeply.
Much of that came from the dropoff in business travel, said Jim Bartholomay, general manager of the Renaissance Hotel at International Plaza. "But it's logical that if you've got shrinking business and add some supply, everybody's working harder."
He and other hotel executives met with Rotella, who suggested dusting off a previous concept for a center to host mid-sized groups and events.
"The city is losing business because West Shore doesn't have enough space for meetings that are too small for the Tampa Convention Center but too large for West Shore," Rotella said.
The county's Tourist Development Council, made up of local elected officials and tourist industry executives, allocated $25,000 for the study in February. One member, Tampa hotel broker Lou Plasencia, says it wouldn't make sense to build a West Shore center 5 miles from the Tampa Convention Center.
"We've got a taxpayer-owned convention center that needs expansion in the worst way," he says. "We need to look at what we need for the entire Tampa Bay area, not just West Shore."
The council paid $147,000 for an extensive study on doubling the size of the convention center in 2004. But members couldn't find city or county revenue sources big enough to bankroll a $150 million government debt issue to pay for the project.
Tampa still pays $13.5 million in debt service to pay off the original convention center bonds. The payments run through 2015.